The first album I listened to properly, and I mean from cover to cover, was Eminem’s “Marshall Mathers” LP. It was released in 2001; I was nine and my older brother had been given a copy by his best friend. The album had a canary-yellow sticker on it, warning young buyers that they needed parental permission to purchase it. Nothing could have made it more appealing; I took the album, put the disk into my Walkman and listened to Eminem for three days straight.
From that moment on, rap became my favorite genre, an obsession I was vaguely ashamed of but needed in my life. Initially, its attraction lay in the cursing I could discern amongst the rapid-fire rhymes – words I’d hear my mother hiss when she smashed a plate, words a kid called Evan at my school used bountifully, usually before being sent out of the classroom.
But as I went through high school and college, rap came to mean way more than just alluring obscenity. I became picky, developing on the one hand an interest in the worlds being rapped about and on the other a keener ear for poetic and witty lyrics — even if they were sometimes sexist. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” came out in 2004, when I was midway through my second year of boarding school in England. Once the lights went out in our nine-girl dormitory, I would listen to the album under my duvet, reflecting sagely that however huge my homework pile, I at least was not being afflicted by “bitch problems.” And now I’m a feminist. You probably know the deal – I believe that women should be treated equally to men, that they should be able to climb career ladders despite their ovaries and retain jobs in TV when they get wrinkles. I’d like girls not to feel outsexed by Barbie; I’d like to live in a time when ladies who, to use today’s parlance, “sleep around” aren’t condescended or shunned but are treated as normally functioning people whose sexual appetites are as by-the-by as their tastes in upholstery.
These views didn’t suddenly walk into my head on my 18th birthday; they were there all along. But the older I get, the crankier gender inequality makes me feel.
Recognizing that I’m a feminist has not provoked some astronomical life change. Feminism is, after all, a cartoonishly broad church; I still wear make-up and I still like rom-coms. But it has made me examine my music tastes with a shrewder eye. Is my rap habit – which has only increased in intensity since “Marshall Mathers” – incompatible with my views on gender?
Listening to the past month’s biggest hits, it’s hard to deny that misogyny is still alive and well in the rap industry. In Meek Mill’s latest track, he says to a female addressee, “It’s two words, ‘bitch fuck,’” and then, more charitably to a male adversary, “You can have my old bitch cause I don’t do the same hoes.” In Big Sean’s single “I Don’t Fuck With You,” he says as much to his ex, calling her “you lil stupid ass bitch” before adding for good measure, “fuck how you feel.”
This stuff is pretty inarguably misogynistic. Not all rap and hip hop is as bad, obviously—in “Dear Mama,” Tupac thanks his mom for being “always committed.” But derogatory images of women remain dominant in rap music. Women are rarely presented as smart or superior; they “ain’t shit,” as Dr. Dre observes, “but hoes and tricks [to] lick on these nuts and suck the dick.” Some artists even underline that they specifically enjoy having sex with independent women so as to put them in their place – B.I.G. likes his ladies “educated” so that he can “bust off on they glasses,” a lyric which, as a spectacle-wearer myself, has always made me chuckle.
Of course, I’m not the only white, privileged female to enjoy this sort of music. But instead of squirming at my ability to stomach the woman-hating I hear, it seems useful to examine why rap is sexist. The misogyny didn’t pop up ex nihilo: As rap became increasingly produced by major record labels, artists had to offer more hardcore content. Research has shown a direct correlation between a rap album’s explicitness and its success.
Too $hort addresses this connection head on, replying in “Thangs Change” to the charge that rappers are “always disrepectin’ ladies.” He basically shrugs it off, saying, “I get paid to talk bad about a bitch.” Rappers shouldn’t be let off the hook entirely – denigrating women is, after all, a cowardly way of squandering poetic talent. But the issue of misogyny in rap is not quite the black and white ethical field it is often framed as.
No musicians create in a vacuum; rap lyrics reflect the realities their writers deal with on the day-to-day. That’s not to say that the songs’ extravagant tales of pussies and gangbangs are legit – they’re often exaggerated, intent on gratifying demands for stereotypical representations of ghetto life. But the need these young, usually black, usually male artists feel to trumpet their own virility via the denigration of the female reflects a sociocultural situation that is absolutely real and, on the whole, horrific. For some of these artists, the opportunities for proving their masculinity in more palatable fields – professional frameworks, for instance – have been sparse, denied by a society that incarcerates over 12 percent of its African-American population.
Yet even if rappers are exhorted to churn out misogynistic content by industry fat-cats, and even if rappers’ creativity can only unfurl within the boundaries of a warped sociocultural context, misogyny in rap remains problematic for feminist listeners. How can someone who wants women to be respected listen to, much less pay for, content that perpetuates harmful gender norms?
It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with a lot – I’ll feel outraged by a lyric that I feel goes “too far”, before forgiving a song that is just as offensive, but which I like for its solid boardwork.
At this point, I’m reminded of Sarah Koenig in the “Serial” podcast, who also swings from one point of view to another. I don’t have the answer, essentially – all I know is that I believe in gender equality, and yet I like rap music, including songs that are insulting to my sex. I also like Flaubert, the 19th century French novelist whose female characters were also almost all one-dimensional. The reasons why we respond positively to certain art forms over others are complex, and while I would like my political stances to dovetail with my tastes in art, music and literature, they just don’t. Figuring that out is one of the hardest tasks of being a modern feminist, because it involves a constant evaluation of where lines can be drawn and where they cannot.